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THE CHALLENGE OF DEATH
BY L. P. JACKS
one it of huma It give from
fund sheer so here than
In a certain factory where food prod- and his whole life resolves itself into a ucts are prepared and exported to all simple movement, like that of a penduparts of the world there may be seen lum, endlessly repeated, between his an instance of that monotonous labor house and his office. Here is the ultiwhich is so marked and terrible a fea- mate formula of Podsnap's existence ture of mass production under mod- as Dickens presents it: rise at eight; ern industrial methods. It consists in close shave at a quarter past; breakfast knocking the top off an egg. The eggs at nine; to the city at ten; home again are delivered by machinery on to a at half-past five; dinner at seven. That table behind which stands a row of is the programme for the day; and the women knocking off the tops. One programme for the year is to repeat it woman has done it for thirty years. so many hundred times. As with the
This is an image of human life at the egg-breaker so here the total impression extreme stage of futility. It gives the is of 'sheer futility. Getting down to beholder thoughts that are far from fundamentals there is not much to consoling. He may remember, for choose between thirty years of Podexample, that food products from that snap's programme and thirty years of factory are sometimes to be found on the egg-breaker's.. his own table, making him an accom- There is an American novel which plice to the monotony of that woman's yields the same impression, whether life, a party to its futility, and to that designedly or not I do not know. No extent responsible for it.
American novel of recent times has Dickens has drawn a similar picture been more widely read in England than on another plane. In Our Mutual Babbitt. It has interested us for many Friend a person is introduced named reasons, not least because it deals with Mr. Podsnap. Mr. Podsnap is the car. certain moral conditions which are icature of a purse-proud and pompous common to both sides of the Atlantic. Englishman — perhaps Dickens's finest The background of that story, it will be caricature, enormously exaggerated, of remembered, is the life of a large and course, but yet true in the groundwork prosperous city of rapid growth, where of it. He has an office in the city and a all the mechanical apparatus of civilifine house in the West End of London; zation is running at high pressure. If VOL. 184 — NO.6
you canich, when oncetely vicious cire gramme wait nothing, a Pement from
you look at that life in detail, if you which the very form of human lantake the personalities and the actions guage is lost. The parts mean someone by one, you would say that nothing thing, the whole — nothing. could be less monotonous. It is like a The same phenomenon on a still kaleidoscope where all is restless change larger scale is presented by human progand shifting scenery, no two moments ress in general, or at least by a wellalike, no person the copy of another. known version of it. There is a way But if you look at it all, not in detail, of presenting human progress which rebut in the grand outlines of it, in the duces it to the endless self-repetition, totality of what it is, then it strikes you under different terms, of the same as always the same, not moving to any identical formula, a movement from assignable goal, but endlessly repeat- nothing to nothing, a Podsnap-proing itself, endlessly revolving round the gramme writ large over the face of the same centre, a completely vicious cir- centuries. Mr. Bertrand Russell is not cle, which, when once you get into, so far as I know a believer in that docyou can never get out of, try as you trine, but there are chapters in the Prosmay. There is poor Babbitt himself, pects of Industrial Civilization which a most pathetic figure. You see him leave the impression of an appalling caught in the revolution, vainly strug- monotony in the history of mankind. gling from time to time to strike out an In one of his chapters he speculates, independent course, but always falling with his usual brilliance, on the various back into the senseless round from regroupings of the nations, the readnowhere to nowhere. All that happens justments of political and economic in the way of change is the continual power that the future is likely to bring acceleration of the pace; the whirl forth — a chapter that should interest goes faster and faster, which only Americans because, in Mr. Russell's renders the people who are in it the vision of the future, they invariably get more powerless to get out of it. This the best of it. is a very truthful picture of hun. But from the point of view of mandreds of cities all over the world and kind it makes no difference who gets perhaps of industrial civilization in gen- the best of it, the Americans or anyeral — the life of the egg-breaker writ body else, because the new situation, large, the life of Podsnap expanded to created by these apparent changes, is a social phenomenon.
nothing but the old situation with the A similar thought crosses the mind factors of it transposed. It is like an when watching the innumerable motor equation in algebra in which the cars which throng the streets. Each quantities on either side can be put on separate car is clearly going somewhere, the other side by simply changing but the totality of the cars appears to plus into minus and minus into plus, be going nowhere — just moving, as a but without making any difference to fermentation moves. You can assign the significance of the equation as a a definite destination to the single car whole, which always yields the same – but not to the totality.
result, namely, that x=0. According So too in a great assembly when to Mr. Russell the two main forces three or four hundred people are talk- which determine the distribution of ing all at once. Each separate speaker power among nations are cupidity and is saying something significant to his fear; in every rearrangement of power neighbor, but the totality of the voices this formula repeats itself; the final is a meaningless roar, a big noise in arrangement, like the present one,
being only the last thing which over and over again: the entire secular cupidity and fear have been able to process is an everlasting repetition – accomplish. The changes that go on the totality of which yields nothing are kaleidoscopic in their detail, but new. So writes the late Prince Eugene viewed synoptically the whole opera- Troubetzkoy: it is a line of thought tion is perfectly meaningless, like the that seems to have a peculiar attraction egg-breaker's life, like Podsnap's pro- for the Russian mind. Troubetzkoy gramme, like Babbitt's environment. goes on to quote an instance from In a world ruled permanently by cu- Dostoievsky's great novel, The Brothers. pidity and fear it makes no atom of The Devil is speaking to one of the difference whether we live now, or brothers. “You are always thinking of whether we live a thousand years from the earth as it exists to-day,' says the now; whether the Americans get the Devil. “Well, let me tell you that the best of it, or the Chinese. At all stages earth as it exists to-day has been reof the process the total values are the peated millions of times in the past; same. The equation grows ever more each time it perished, disintegrated, complicated, until no sheet is big turned into dust, and decomposed; enough to contain all the terms of it. after that a fresh nebula was formed, But beneath this vast complication of then a comet, a new solar system, a terms and figures a truth lies hidden new earth. The whole of this evolution that is exactly the same as it was when has been repeated times without end, the equation stood in its simplest always precisely in the same manner form, - the truth, namely, that x=0, down to the minutest details. One is — the equation of the egg-breaker, of bored to death to think of it.' Podsnap, and of Babbitt, of the motor- In these words, which are rightly cars, and of the roar of voices.
placed in the mouth of the Devil, we
sound the lowest depths of pessimism. II
The entire cosmic process has now
reduced itself to the everlasting equaWe have followed this idea into a tion that x=0. When all has been wide field — from the egg-breaker to accomplished that can be undertaken, the history of civilization. But a when the system of nature has exfurther extension awaits us. We can hausted its possibilities, when evolution expand the theme to the cosmic scale. has reached its goal, when all conThere are philosophies both ancient ceivable perfectibilities have been atand modern which regard the evolution tained, when the dream of an Earthly of the entire universe as a meaningless Paradise has been fulfilled, when the process of self-repetition,-a vicious causes have triumphed for which circle that moves from nothing to heroes fight and martyrs suffer and nothing and embraces all created lovers break their hearts — all must things, — the doom of the whole crea- perish and begin again, repeating the tion groaning and travailing together process to the minutest detail, only to in the boredom of endless monotony. perish in like manner when its course ‘Alike among the pessimistic religions is run, and so on forever and ever. of India, the teachings of Heraclitus Not a tear has been shed but must be and Plato concerning the shadow side shed again, not a drop of blood has of our existence, the ideas of Schopen- been spilt but must be spilt again, not hauer and Nietzsche about the eternal a heart broken but must break again, cycles, we encounter the same theme and again, and again, through endless
tear has on foreven its courto
eternity, whenever the remorseless himself confesses, he would welcome cycle returns to the point where that the advent of a kindly comet to put drop of blood was spilt, where that an end to the antics of man on the tear was shed, where that heart was planet. I do not know how the mind of broken before. Well may the Devil say America stands in this matter; but in it bores one to death to think of it. England I observe this: that while very
For Death is the keynote of the entire few people will acknowledge themselves process, as well as of the reactions it pessimists, most people will listen with provokes in us. In contemplating a interest to the philosophy of pessifutility so dreadful our very souls seem mism as though they found in it an to expire. It is not only we that die but echo of something in their own minds,
infinitesimal parts - and for no end which lives in the presence of Death.' save that it may live and die again. We believe, as I suppose Americans Death has dominion over it all. The do, that civilization is moving to an end equation of our life is the equation of that is really worth while, accepting it all existence. Disguised under the im- pretty much as a matter of faith. But mense complexity of the phenomena when we are asked to define the end, that confront us, hidden by phraseol- to say what it is, most of us are at a ogy which has perhaps been contrived loss; and our inability to define the end for the express purpose of hiding it, sometimes causes a passing doubt as to lies the formula, embedded in the very whether there is any end at all. With structure of things, that x=0.
us, as with Americans, life is full of
excitements and distractions; and our A Moment's Halt - a momentary taste misgivings, if we have any, are easily Of Being from the Well amid the Waste
drowned. Like the Americans, we have And Lo! the phantom Caravan has reached The Nothing it set out from. Oh, make
little time for meditating on Death and haste!
Eternity and little inclination to do so.
Besides all which, we live in an atIt will rightly be said that this in- mosphere deeply influenced by Christolerable philosophy, familiar as it was tian tradition. And that makes a great in the ancient world, and still is in the difference even to those persons who East, is not and never can be the creed have ceased to be conscious adherents of the energetic Western nations. And of any form of Christianity. In all yet I venture to think that even in Christian countries there is a rumor these 'practical' times, with their dis- abroad that Death, and all the frustracoveries, adventures, exploitations, and tions from Death, have been overcome; noisy successes, there does arise in that the vicious circle of existence has us from time to time a dim but dis- somehow been broken at that point; turbing suspicion, a haunting half- that a way of deliverance has been thought, that the whole enterprise on found from the meaningless whirlpool which we are engaged is futile. It is of self-repetition; and that men therethe inarticulate voice of that 'deeper fore may go on living their lives as self which lives in the presence of though Death did n't count. I say Death.' Mr. Bertrand Russell, for there is a vague rumor to that effect; example, who is an eager reformer, not a positive solution of the problem keenly conscious of certain ends that consciously grasped, but a reminiscence are worth striving for, has his moments of the fact that Someone, somewhere, of profound depression when, as he has broken the circle. It belongs to
the atmosphere we are breathing, this except it be that the death of the villain tradition that the Challenge of Death is a good riddance and the death of has been successfully met and answer. Socrates an irreparable loss? And so ed. What grounds are there for such with the human race as a whole. a belief?
Whatever satisfaction may be felt as In the first place I must explain that we watch the ascent of man on one side the Challenge of Death presents itself of the mountain, through all the stages to my mind as the summary challenge of rising value, to the apex of the which the Higher Powers lay at the feet Earthly Paradise, is it not all wiped of man. It is the spear-point of the out as we contemplate the inevitable Challenge of Life, not to be evaded on return-journey which brings him back any terms, as the fashion now is with stage by stage to the starting-point and many to evade it. To find a good in life then engulfs him in Universal Death? which is worth achieving in spite of For every plus on the one side there is a the fact, consciously realized, that this minus on the other, and the end of the visible scene on which we operate, and equation, as before, is that x=0. we, the visible agents who operate if this were the conclusion of the within it, will presently be gathered to whole matter the blackest pessimism the dark death-kingdoms and enfolded would be left in possession of the field in the bosom of the everlasting Silence of thought and the human race might - that is the spear-point of the Chal- curse the day when it was born. lenge, the acid test of philosophy, the point where philosophy must either pass into religion or retire, beaten, from the field. The last enemy that shall be To what purpose, the reader will be destroyed,' says Saint Paul, 'is death.' asking, has a line of inquiry been The last- and the most formidable. pursued which leads to a result so All other enemies may have been over- disastrous? I have pursued it for this come: poverty, misery, crime, injustice, reason: it is only by frankly facing whatever ills beset the path of man the disaster, by measuring it to the from the cradle to the grave; but so long full extent, by extenuating nothing as there is nothing but a grave at the of its significance, that we are able to end, not for the individual alone but grasp the scope and the majesty of the for the whole system to which it be- means which religion brings to the longs, what does it all amount to? This rescue. raising of richer harvests for Death to Religion is being presented to the reap, which is all your secular progress world to-day in forms which are quite can boast of, this fattening of victims inadequate to the problem it has to for the universal sacrifice, which is all solve, which belittle religion into a your philanthropy can achieve — is mere reënforcement, often a slight that the triumph of man? Does the reënforcement, of the powers of man in victim feel his doom the lighter be- fighting the battle of his temporal incause, up to the moment of his immola- terests; as, for example, when we define tion, he has been well fed? And what it as morality touched with emotion, difference does it make if you feed his the emotion being the slight reënforcemind as well as his body? Take Soc- ment brought on to the battlefield. Rerates at the moment of his final ex- ligion is infinitely greater than that. It tinction, and what is the difference is the power that faces the Challenge of between him and the vilest of mankind, Life when it comes to its spear-point in
To whas a lineds to a result this
mind ace does it mal fed? And mola.